I just read this article about how the anxiety everyone experiences from time to time can be good for you as well as destructive. As Alice Park describes in “The Two Faces of Anxiety” in the December 5th issue of Time, not all anxiety should be battled. Instead, sometimes you should embrace or even celebrate it, because “the hormones that drive anxiety can be powerful stimulants, arousing the senses to the fullest.” She also points out that besides the ordinary feelings of anxiety we all experience, various types of anxiety disorders affect about 40 million adult Americans — about 18% of the population.
Well, that discussion of anxiety got me thinking. If anxiety is so universal and can become severe enough to becomes a mental illness for nearly a fifth of the U.S. population, perhaps it could be mobilized in a positive way. After all, since it has the ability to stimulate the senses, some anxiety can contribute to evoking a good performance in whatever one seeks to do.
For example, successful performers on stage use that anxious feeling before they go on to do a great job, whereas their performance might be just ordinary without that charge of adrenalin produced by anxiety. This positive power of anxiety is the phenomenon psychologists call “challenge stress” which can fire up our competitive juices, so we give a peak performance, whereas if we feel overly anxious, that can undermine what we do. As psychologists and biologists point out, this experience of anxiety is actually a survival instinct, so we are poised to act in response to experiencing danger by flight, fight, or otherwise acting to protect ourselves.
In short, the ideal is to embrace and celebrate the challenge stress that fires you up to respond positively, when you feel you can effectively deal with a difficult situation, because you know what to do and have the resources needed to take action. By contrast, if you feel threat stress, when you don’t feel you can manage the situation, you can act in a destructive, non-productive way, such as if you feel panicky or feel frozen to act.
However, in either case, whatever you experience challenge or threat stress, you might be able to tame and transform it by directing it to creative ends. Then, as you take action, that can help you to overcome or reduce any feelings of stress, much like happens when a nervous performer steps on stage and suddenly performs at his or her peak. With too much anxiety, the actor can freeze, forget lines, or otherwise stumble. But with practice performers learn to manage any feelings of anxiety, so they smooth over the rough spots. So can you.
For example, say you are feeling anxious about something. One way to deal with it is to do something else to distract your attention. Such a response can be a form of escape, such as going for a walk in nature, going to a movie, calling friends on the phone, going to a party, or whatever brings you a sense of relief.
An alternative is to seek to do something creative, so you not only reduce or overcome feelings of anxiety, but you channel it into a creative project. For example, think of all the comedians who turn something they are anxious about into a subject of humor. Many writers turn their anxieties into a poem or story about what bothers them. Scriptwriters and filmmakers may use their anxiety to spark the beginning of a script or film. Artists and craftspeople may turn their feelings of anxiety into a painting or sculpture. You might even turn your anxieties into a making a great recipe for a dinner or a cake.
In turn, since everyone experiences some anxiety at some time, you will often find that others can relate to your story, art work, or other creative project, because they can see a reflection of their own anxiety there. Then, that awareness can help them experience a sense of release through sharing a common experience, with the result that they feel better too
Thus, if you’re feeling anxious about something, you might productively channel those feelings into some kind of creative project. The result is you will not only feel less anxious and less stressed, but feel even more contented and happy because of experiencing satisfaction with whatever you have produced.
Gini Graham Scott, PhD, is the author of over 50 books, specializing in work relationships, professional and personal development, popular culture, and social trends. She also a script writer and indie film producer, with several projects in development and post-production. She has her own publishing company Changemakers Publishing and writes books and scripts for others, too.